One would think, or at least hope, that three-quarters of the way through the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves would know what they had and how to use it — how to exploit their strengths and camouflage their weaknesses. One would similarly hope that at this late stage the team would be aware of their precarious position in the playoff race and the potentially seismic impact it could have on the near-term future of the franchise if they fail to make the postseason for the 10th straight year.
But the Wolves have been all about teasing and dashing, raising and dousing hopes this season. It’s been a frustrating roller coaster, less for the thrills and chills of the highs and lows than for the mundane mediocrity almost regardless of circumstance.
In the realms of aesthetics and analytics, the Wolves appear to be an eminently satisfying outfit. They boast a superstar in Kevin Love who is one of the top five players in the NBA this season. They abet him with such memorable characters as center Nikola Pekovic, the twirling block of granite ideally typecast to the World’s Strongest Man in a barnstorming circus troupe from the late 19th century; point guard Ricky Rubio, who wows the crowd at least once or twice per game with his nonpareil court vision and magical dimes; and swingman Corey Brewer, a dilapidated dervish of uncontrolled energy, flipping his whippet-thin physique around the court like a scrap of paper in the pre-thunderstorm gusts.
With Rubio and Brewer combining for more steals than any tandem in the NBA and Love heaving touchdown outlet strikes to a streaking Brewer in transition, the Wolves play at the third-fastest pace and score the fourth-most points of any team in the league. According to the latest statistics from Basketball Reference, they are ninth among the 30 teams in offensive efficiency (points scored per possession) and 10th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession). The “expected won-lost” record arising out of those numbers is currently 38-22, which would place the Wolves sixth in the Western Conference and virtually assured of the playoffs.
But the colorful characters and the gaudy numbers ultimately amount to an elaborate façade. Minnesota has never been more than three games above or four games below .500 this season. They have played games in six calendar months thus far, from October to March, and at the end of each month they are no more than one game above or below .500. Their current record is 30-30.
Put another way, we keep waiting for these Wolves to catch fire, but that damp, steady flickering — never extinguished yet never in full, consuming conflagration — has been remarkably, disconcertingly, constant. The nagging question then becomes, is this due to a net paucity of firepower, or in the way in which the components for the fire have been arrayed?
Stop staying the course
If Minnesota simply lacks the requisite talent to snag even the lowest rung on the playoff ladder in the brutally competitive Western Conference, so be it. Fans of the team will look on from an increasingly jaded distance as President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders and his staff engage in a very difficult and complicated review and revamping this summer.
But since the Wolves have already put themselves in relatively desperate straits — they are five games out of the final playoff spot with 22 games remaining, and must leapfrog over at least two teams to make it — it seems like the right time to abandon the reliably mediocre status quo and poke that flickering fire a few times in a last-ditch effort to inject new life into the season. Here’s my list of reasonably desperate measures.
Ride the superstar
Kevin Love currently ranks 15th in the NBA at 36.3 minutes per game. That number needs to be bumped up four or five minutes and concentrated in the second half of close games for the rest of the season.
As the season has progressed, the performance gap between Love and the rest of his teammates has inexorably lengthened. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how dominant he has become to the team’s overall fortunes. Per Basketball Reference, the Wolves improve by 17.3 points per 100 possessions when Love plays, compared with when he sits. In terms of basic arithmetic, Minnesota is plus 384 in 2,071 minutes with Love and minus 155 in 719 minutes without him.
Bottom line, the Wolves can no longer afford the luxury of resting Love at the beginning of fourth quarters. Wednesday night’s horrible home loss to the 21-40 Knicks was the latest reminder — the Wolves were down two at the onset of the period and behind by 11 when coach Rick Adelman inserted him back in 4:20 seconds later.
For the season, Love has played 353 fourth quarter minutes, an average of 6.9 minutes per game. The early-quarter break has not helped him much — his shooting percentage from the field and the three-point line are his lowest of any period — nor has it benefitted the team. The Wolves are plus 1 with Love in the final quarter, and minus 134 without him.
Unless the circumstances are really extreme, Love has to get at least a little bit of a blow in the second half. I suggest sitting him the final two or three minutes of the third quarter, so he doesn’t lose the break between periods tacked on to his rest. That time can be given to Dante Cunningham beside Pekovic, so that Cunningham is warmed up when Love replaces Pek to start the fourth — essentially flipping the way Adelman uses Love and Pekovic now.
Whether it is psychological or physical, the first six minutes of the fourth quarter have been the Wolves’ undoing for much of the season. Knowing that the superstar is there for the duration of it, if necessary, addresses the problem either way.
Make Love’s teammates earn the right to play with him
Love is so dominant that he makes everybody who plays with him look good on the stat sheet. Consequently, one possibly effective way to judge a player’s performance, and apportion key minutes, is to determine who makes Love better.
According to the “lineups” section for Love at Basketball Reference, the team is most effective — plus 11.5 points per 100 possessions — when he is paired with Cunningham. Among the starters, Love and the team are most effective when he is with Rubio (9.8 points per 100 possessions), followed by Pekovic (9.5), Brewer (9.1) and Martin (6.8). Since the Wolves are plus 8.8 points per 100 possessions when Love plays overall, Martin is the lone starter who actually hinders Love’s standard production.
One reason for this, of course, is that Martin is a wretched defender, and Love is, at best, average at that end of the court. But what’s fascinating about the Basketball Reference data is that the team’s shooting percentage, from both two-point and three-point territory, actually declines when Love and K-Mart share the court. In fact, only backup center Ronny Turiaf has a bigger drag than Martin on the team’s shooting accuracy in two-man pairings with Love.
And yes, the two foul-drawing maestros do compensate by getting to the line an extra 12 times per 100 possessions (compared with the team norm) when playing together, but the Wolves take — and make — more free throws per 100 possessions when Love is paired with Cunningham or Rubio.
Given the agonizingly slow but still relatively steady recuperation of Chase Budinger, who is plus 8.7 points per 100 possessions when paired with Love, it makes sense to give Budinger more time with the current starters, especially when Martin is in one of his curious funks. One rotation tweak would be to sub in Budinger midway through the first period and bring Martin in with the second unit at the end of the first or beginning of the second quarter, when his scoring prowess would be more in need and his matador defense could be at least partially compensated for by rugged front court backup Gorgui Dieng, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Turiaf (when healthy). Playing Martin with rookie Shabazz Muhammad might also provide spacing that would benefit Muhammad in the low post and Martin on the perimeter.
As for Cunningham, his complementary skills beside Love only reinforces the need to have the pair out there together early in the fourth quarter. As it now stands, Cunningham and Pek are the early fourth-quarter frontcourt — a two-player combo that is minus 6.4 points per 100 possessions. If you are going to be crippled by that duo, have it happen in the third quarter so there is time to recover.
Limit J.J. Barea
There is no more blatant emblem of the Wolves’ dysfunction and underachievement this season than the play of Barea. Not only has he been miscast as a backup point guard, but he has been allowed to log a lost wealth of crunchtime minutes at that spot while Rubio languishes on the bench.
Barea has his utility. When he is hot and in rhythm, he can be a legitimate sparkplug and rallying force for the second unit.
But Barea is also a brat who acts out when he isn’t receiving his perception of adequate playing time. And because the Wolves both added capable wing players and have Rubio healthy for the first time in Barea’s three seasons in Minnesota, his minutes have fallen from 25.2 to 23.1 down to 18.3 this season — time that is logged without an enabling fellow combo guard such as Luke Ridnour beside him.
The fallout has been disastrous. Barea is shooting more frequently than in any season in his eight-year career, yet his true shooting percentage is the lowest since his rookie season. He does not benefit Love — the pair are plus 5.2 points per 100 possessions together, Love’s lowest total with any teammate but Turiaf. When Barea is in the game, the Wolves field goal percentage declines .042 and they are a net minus 3.8 points per 100 possessions.
Solution: Unless the Wolves are way behind and in need of a Hail Mary performance, keep Barea out of meaningful minutes, especially when it is close in the fourth quarter. Yes, I know he gets upset. Get more upset in return. The next time Barea launches a screw-you jumper with Rubio at the scorer’s table ready to come in to the game, bring on A.J. Price to run the point in the next rotation. And be surprised at how well the ball moves.
Make Rubio three-pointers part of the crunchtime offense
I am among the guilty scribes who have transformed the shooting woes of Ricky Rubio into a modern legend. You can’t argue with the numbers, which, although they have improved of late, still have Rubio shooting 36.8 percent from the field, with a true shooting percentage of 48.2 — both well below the NBA average and keeping him on track to become the least accurate shooting point guard in modern NBA history.
But part of Rubio’s woes can be attributed to his shot selection, specifically his disinclination not to rely more on three-pointers for his individual offense.
Thus far this season in the NBA, three-pointers have made up 25.6 percent of the total field goal attempts — the portion is undoubtedly higher among back court players. Yet just 20.3 percent of Rubio’s field goal attempts are from long range. And that is absurd.
Rubio happens to be the third-most accurate three-point shooter on the team, behind only Martin and Love, at 34.7 percent. So, every time you watch Corey Brewer launch from the corner — or Budinger, Barea, Hummel, Shved, you name it — know that Rubio from long range is a statistically better bet.
This is important because poor shooting is the most persuasive argument for why Rubio sits in the fourth quarter so often. But by the very nature of that argument — defenses sag down and double-team others, daring Rubio to shoot — the evidence is that Rubio will be granted the time and the space to set himself and let fly from behind the arc in the late stages of a close game. And, as he showed with his crucial crunchtime trey in the recent win over Sacramento, when Rubio takes his time and gets set, his long-range accuracy goes up even further.
Not only would a few Rubio threes in crunchtime immediately benefit the Wolves, it would compel defenses to respect Rubio and open up spacing and passing lanes for the offense. And Rubio with space to dish is good news for Minnesota.
The clear-cut precedent for this dynamic is Jason Kidd, who extended his career at least four or five seasons by concentrating on almost nothing but three-pointers for his own scoring, utilizing a skill set very similar to Rubio’s.
It offers the Wolves a tad better chance of improving their awful fourth quarter performance than relying on Barea to get things done.
As much as possible, play one-way players only one way
One of the difficulties with the current Wolves roster is the dearth of two-way players — versatile performers who are adept at both the offensive and defensive end. As the season winds down and every possession becomes that much more important to Minnesota’s longshot playoff hopes, it is time to micromanage substitutions to maximize these lopsided skill sets.
Specifically, as much as possible, Martin should not play defense and Mbah a Moute should not play offense. If that means filtering people in and out whenever there is a stoppage in play for free throws, then that’s what should happen.
I also wish for more specific matchup minutes according to situation. The Knicks’ forward Carmelo Anthony torched the Wolves for 33 points on 14-for-27 shooting Wednesday night. The player who guarded Anthony the most was Brewer, who was ceding 45 pounds of mostly muscle in the encounter.
Minnesota had a wing stopper on the bench who is listed at the exact same height and weight as Melo’s 6-8, 240 pounds, a player who has had good success matching up with Melo in the past. But Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was allowed on 3:24 of playing time. When first matched up with Melo, Anthony faked a shot and then blew past Mbah a Moute for a baseline layup. But soon afterward, Mbah a Moute stole the ball and initiated a transition layup at the other end. Overall, he was plus 1 in his limited time, in a game his team lost by 12.
Time is running out. Minnesota needs to exploit its strengths and camouflage its weaknesses. Otherwise, recriminations beckon.